School divisions in the Westlock area will have a bit more breathing room with this year’s budget after last week’s announcement that $107 million dollars will be added to school budgets province-wide.
The Pembina Hills school division will get an additional $791,276, while Evergreen Catholic will get $662,260, according to Alberta Education.
Thomas Lukaszuk, the new education minister under premier Alison Redford, made the announcement last week in Edmonton, and spoke to rural media outlets via a teleconference last Friday.
He explained that while this $107 million is a one-time cash injection for the 2011/12 school year, he also hopes to ensure schools are properly funded moving into the future.
“At the end of the day, my goal will be that every child in this province receives the highest possible level of education, and that will mean we have to find ways of funding school board equitably, and also giving them predictability in their funding,” he said.
The money was distributed in a way that’s “similar” to previous grants provided to schools, but did not elaborate.
Lukaszuk said he had given instructions to school boards as to how the money should be spent, but ultimately he has given individual boards a lot of leeway and autonomy to determine their own pressures.
“You will hear me say over and over again that no matter what we all do, we have to always look through the lens of a child. Everything we do must have positive outcomes in the classroom,” he said. “My overarching request was that these dollars be spent in a way that a student … will feel and see the difference in his or her classroom.”
Pembina Hills chairman Doug Fleming said that they are committed to honouring the request of government and will be doing thorough research into how best to spend the funds.
“The first thing we need to do is make sure that all of our class sizes are within the provincial guidelines,” he said, adding that there is potential to rehire some of the staff that was let go when the division was faced with a $1.13 million deficit last year.
In total, he said roughly 12 teachers and 15 support staff were let go.
Before deciding which, if any, will be rehired, the board will look into if there are any “pressure points” in the classroom impacting learning.
There is also potential that funds will be directed towards the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI), which was cut in half last year as a result of budget shortfalls. AISI is a program in place since 1999 that encourages growth, creativity and innovation in schools throughout the province.
“We’ve got a pretty good system in place so whether we actually take that money and reintroduce some more coaches at this time, I would say would be speculative at best,” Fleming said.
The board will meet in Barrhead on Oct. 26 to discuss where they would like the money to be directed, with further discussions taking place at the principal’s meeting on Oct. 27.
“The Pembina Hills school division is elative and very thankful to Premier Redford and the rest of the Government of Alberta for honouring her commitment to restore the money to school boards,” he said.
Lukaszuk acknowledged that by finding an extra $107 million for Alberta’s schools, the money would have to come from other departments, a task for the Treasury Board, but said the new government’s priority will be education.
“Education will be the priority for this government, and that will be the guiding light for the treasury board in their search for dollars,” he said.
Lukaszuk said as minister, he hopes to be able to take the time to visit each school division to see what unique challenges they face.
• With files from Megan Sarrazin